The 1st Airborne Task Force was a short-lived Allied airborne unit that was active during World War II created for Operation Dragoon–the invasion of Southern France. Formed in July 1944, under the command of Major General Robert T. Frederick, it took part in the "Dragoon" landings on 15 August 1944, securing the area north-west of the landing beaches, before moving towards the French-Italian border as part of the United States Seventh Army. The unit was disbanded in November 1944.
In the initial plans for the invasion of France it was proposed that two forces would land simultaneously in Normandy and in southern France in June 1944, attacking the Germans from the north and south in a classic pincer movement, after which the southern forces would head east to aid Allied forces in Italy. However it was soon realized that there were not enough landing ships or men available to carry out both operations at the same time, so the southern invasion ("Operation Anvil") was postponed. The southern invasion (now "Operation Dragoon") was planned for August 1944, and all airborne forces were allocated to a new unit formed on 11 July 1944 as the Seventh Army Airborne Division (Provisional). This was redesignated the 1st Airborne Task Force on the 21st.
In order to form the 1ABTF airborne units were withdrawn from combat in Italy. These were the U.S. 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and U.S. 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, and the British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. Added to them were the U.S. 550th Glider Infantry Battalion and U.S. 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, both of which had previously been stationed in Panama, and neither of which had seen combat. Two Free French parachute battalions had originally been assigned in early July, but disagreements over their deployment with General de Gaulle meant that the troops were not made available, and so the British 2nd Parachute Brigade was assigned to the operation on the proviso that they would be returned to operations in Italy once the beachhead was firmly established.
1ABTF's part in "Dragoon", was codenamed "Operation Rugby". They were to land around the village of Le Muy, midway between Draguignan, and the landing beaches at Fréjus–Saint-Raphaël. There were three Drop Zone/Landing Zones:The British 2nd Para Brigade were assigned an area of open fields and vineyards, designated DZ/LZ "O", 400 yards north of Le Muy on the northern side of the Nartuby River.
The U.S. 517th PRCT were assigned an area of narrow fields about two miles west of Le Muy, designated DZ/LZ "A", south of the Nartuby River.
The 509th PIB and the 463rd Field Artillery were assigned an area, designated DZ "C", about two miles south-east of Le Muy. This area, lying in a basin between two ridges with hills to the east and west, was steep, rocky, and wooded, with only small areas of level and open ground at either end. It was reluctantly chosen in order to put troops on the high ground dominating Le Muy from the south.
Unfortunately, on D-Day (15 August) the pathfinder teams found the area obscured by ground fog up to 800 feet (240 m). As a result, only three of the nine teams, all from the British 2nd Brigade, landed in their drop zones, when they dropped around 03:30. Two American teams landed thirteen miles east of Le Muy; another eight miles to the east, and three more, which landed closer to Le Muy, were unable to orient themselves before dawn.
The fog and a lack of signals from the ground meant that the 509th PIB and the 463rd Field Artillery, the first American units to drop, were scattered. Two companies of the 509th and two batteries of artillery landed on the correct drop zone at 04:30, but one infantry company and two artillery batteries landed south of St. Tropez, nearly fifteen miles to the southeast. The 517th PRCT fared worse, with none of the troops landing on their assigned drop zone. Arriving from about 04:35, most of the 1st Battalion, 517th PIR, were scattered between Trans-en-Provence, four miles to the northwest, and Lorgues, six miles farther west. Most of the 2nd Battalion landed one or two miles northwest of Le Muy, but about a third of the battalion found themselves east and northeast of the town. The 3rd Battalion dropped about twelve to fourteen miles northeast of Le Muy, while a battery of the 460th Field Artillery landed just northwest of Fréjus, twelve miles southeast. Many others were scattered far and wide in ones and twos.
With two of its three pathfinder teams operating their radio beacons to mark the drop zones, the British 2nd Brigade did somewhat better. From about 04:50, half of the 4th Battalion, one company of the 5th Battalion, and most of the 6th Battalion, totaling two-thirds of the brigade, landed in their drop zone. Most of the rest were scattered over an area nine miles northeast and northwest of Le Muy, around Fayence.
Once on the ground the paratroopers regrouped. Most of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 517th PIR reached their assembly areas shortly after dawn, and the British troops who had landed near Callas arrived later in the morning. The bulk of the troops who landed outside of the immediate area joined their parent units on D+1, but the last scattered elements did not arrive until D+5. Overall, less than 40 percent of the troops in the pre-dawn drops landed in their zones, and by dawn at 06:00, only about 60 percent of the men had assembled in the Le Muy area.
Follow-up parachute and glider landings were scheduled to arrive at 08:15, bringing in artillery and anti-tank units of the 2nd Brigade. However, fog still blanketed the landing areas when the aircraft and gliders arrived, so the aircraft turned back without cutting their tows, finally returning about 18:00. Other gliders carrying the Task Force headquarters and other support troops were delayed for about an hour, and landed about 09:30. The 551st PIB, dropped into the 517th's drop zone at 18:10, as planned, while the 550th arrived in their gliders at 18:30, also on schedule. Other support units that came in by glider late in the day also landed according to schedule.
The Germans had planted anti-landing obstacles throughout much of the area, mostly twelve feet wooden stakes, six inches thick, dug deep into the ground. These snapped off the gliders' wings and caused ground loops. Only 50 of around 400 gliders used were salvageable. Fortunately, damage to cargo and passengers was light – only about 80 casualties among the paratroops and about 150 glider troops, not counting 16 glider pilots killed and 37 injured. By 19:00 about 90 percent of the troops and equipment brought in by glider were ready for action.
The failure of the British artillery support to arrive early in the day meant that Le Muy remained in enemy hands, but the British secured the high ground along both sides of the Argens River east of Le Muy, and also the high ground to the north, establishing road blocks and patrols, while the 517th PRCT occupied the hills overlooking the Toulon-Saint-Raphaël corridor in the vicinity of Les Arcs, five miles west of Le Muy, and the 509th dug in on the high ground south of Les Muy with eleven 75 mm guns in position overlooking the town. The first contact with ground forces was made that evening about 20:30 when troops of the 509th PIB met a patrol from the U.S. 45th Division's reconnaissance troop. An attempt to capture Le Muy was mounted by the 550th GIB after dark, but the attack failed and the battalion withdrew to wait until morning. Except for the seizure of the town, the 1ABTF completed its D-Day objectives, establishing a strong blocking position along the Argens Valley and isolating the beachhead. The scattered parachute drop did not appreciably affect the operation and may have helped confuse the Germans as to the objectives of both the airborne and amphibious assaults.
The night 15/16 August was quiet, and on the morning of the 16th the 550th attacked Les Muy again, and by 15:30 hours it was in Allied hands – 170 prisoners were taken. Around noon an Auster aircraft carrying Colonel Pearson arrived to report on the progress of the U.S. 36th Division – Frejus and St Raphael had been captured and the 142nd Infantry would start to move up the Argens Valley towards Les Muy that afternoon. This was the first direct contact between the 36th Division and the airborne force. Early on the morning of the 17th forward elements of the 36th reached Les Muy, and then continued their advance towards Draguignan and Toulon.
Following "Operation Rugby" the 1ABTF moved north-east, covering the right flank of the Seventh Army, and liberating Cannes and Nice, before being deployed to the Maritime Alps in a static role, initiating patrols and keeping a close watch on Germans in the area of the Franco-Italian border.
The 1st Special Service Force was attached on 22 August after capturing the islands of Port Cros and Île du Levant to replace the 2nd (Independent) Parachute Brigade, which was released on 26 August 1944. Six weeks later it was deployed to Greece. In November 1944 1ABTF was sent to Soissons to rest and refit, and was disbanded on 23 November 1944, with most of the units being attached to the XVIII Airborne Corps.
The 1ABTF was composed of the following units:1ABTF HHC – Maj. Gen. Robert T. Frederick
U.S. 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment – Lt. Col. William P. Yarborough
463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion – Lt. Col. John Cooper
U.S. 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team
517th Parachute Infantry Regiment – Col. Rupert D. Graves
460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion – Lt. Col. Raymond L. Cato
596th Airborne Engineer Company – Capt. Robert W. Dalrymple
U.S. 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion (Glider) – Lt. Col. Edward I. Sachs
U.S. 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment – Lt. Col. Wood G. Joerg
602d Glider Field Artillery Battalion – Maj. George M. Hunt
British 2nd (Independent) Parachute Brigade – Brig. Charles Hilary Vaughan Pritchard [detached 26 August]
4th Parachute Battalion – Lt. Col. H.B. Coxen
5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion – Lt. Col. D.R. Hunter
6th (Royal Welch) Parachute Battalion – Lt. Col. V.W. Barlow
1st Independent Parachute Platoon (Pathfinders)
1st Special Service Force (U.S./Canada) – Col. Edwin A. Walker [attached 22 August]
512th Airborne Signal Company
887th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company
Antitank Company, 442nd Infantry Regiment (United States)*
552nd Antitank Company* (The 552 Antitank Company was formed in July 1944, in Rome, specifically for this operation. Since the 442nd became available while the 552nd was in training and took very little time to train on the British 6lb. guns need for gliders, it went in first. But the 552nd was always on the compliment of troops slated for this operation (and the 1st ABTF) and relieved the 442nd mid-October 1944 supporting the 1st ABTF member units still in the area. From documents from the National Archives.)
Company A, 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion
Company A, 83d Chemical Mortar Battalion
Detachment, 3d Ordnance Company
676th Medical Collecting Company
3358th Quartermaster Truck Company
334th Quartermaster Depot Company
172d Detail Issues Depot, British Heavy Aerial Resupply Company
Provisional Troop Carrier Air Division
50th Troop Carrier Wing
51st Troop Carrier Wing
53d Troop Carrier Wing
Glider Pilot Regiment (Horsa)